On Monday Al Gore was in Oslo to receive his share of the Nobel Peace Prize. He didn’t arrive in a limo but on the fast train from the airport like the rest of us. It’s cheap, quick and most important these days, climate friendly. At the press conference, Gore pointed out that the Sami and other indigenous peoples, especially in the Arctic, who live off the land see the catastrophic effects of climate change better than most others. Therefore, the Sami and other indigenous peoples should be able to open the eyes of the rest of the world to the reality of climate change and take action. Gore was backed by Rajendra K. Pachauri, the head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, who encouraged the Sami, together with other indigenous peoples, use all their power to warn the world about the consequences of the climate change.
For the last two days, the Sami have had a heated debate about the topic in the media. The Norwegian Sami Radio had rounded up a respectable group of leading Sami politicians to discuss what the Sami have done and should do about climate change. Another big news catching the headlines was that there is not a single Sami representative at the Bali climate change conference. The Norwegian minister of environment didn’t even know they didn’t have a representative of the Sami Parliament in their delegation although it has become a common practice that Norwegian (and often Finnish, sometimes Swedish) delegations to various UN meetings include also Sami representatives. This time, nobody even knows if an invite was sent out or was the exclusion a simple oversight.
The previous president of the Norwegian Sami Parliament who also served as the first Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples (also a professor at the Sami College), who attended the Rio environment conference in 1992 as part of the Norwegian delegation, is very critical of the lack of Sami representation this time around. He accuses the current president of the Sami Parliament of being too soft on his party buddies (yes, top-level Sami politics in Norway has got to a point where it is run by the same political party, the Labour, as the national government. So much for self-determination?). No doubt the previous president has a valid point but it is also possible to read the criticism as part of the on-going internal Sami politicking. Just a couple of months ago there was a change of leadership at the Sami Parliament in which the Norwegian Sami National Organization lost the presidency to the Labour Party (and we lost a brilliant young female president, first ever in the history of all Sami Parliaments).
The bigger question that cannot be answered here is, of course, how can an elected Sami body established to implement Sami self-governance be lead by a Norwegian party members? Yes they are Sami but can you do anything but co-opt (or sell-out) when your party comrades are in power in the national government?
Another big question that remained unanswered in the Sami media was what have the Sami done and should do about climate change. Listening to the leading Sami politicians – half of whom I know from days we formed the executive board of the Sami Council ten years ago – my head got dizzy and I had a deja-vu experience: a lot of words but are they actually saying anything? I left the politics because I couldn’t handle that, but how can you keep at it for so long without getting any better in providing content?
No, it’s not quite true they didn’t say anything. One said it was expensive to fly to Bali and that what the Sami have done is they have started a big research project on climate change and reindeer herding. It will give us research results to implement. It was also mentioned that the Sami have been actively involved in enviromental issues both locally and internationally. Somebody mentioned big polluters and that the Arctic will experience more development projects than before. Nobody mentioned the latest bad news from Melkøya, the Statoil gasplant – in fact, nobody mentioned any concrete examples or issues. The current president of the Sami Parliament was content to attend the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Oslo instead of attending the Bali conference. Hurray, the leaders have spoken.
But I’m left wondering why none of them said, “ok listeners, the first thing you can and must do is to stop idling your cars when you do your errands or shopping!” Here in Kauto the parking lot of the grocery store is sometimes like a gas chamber with ten or more cars running in a cold day when the fumes just sit low in the air. If you have left your car at home and walked to the shop you almost need a gas mask to survive past the parking lot.
Why none of our glorious leaders said, “and second thing what you need to do is start walking (or biking, skiing, or even car-pooling) to work.” Several of my previous colleagues drive to work for less than a kilometer (some for about 500 m). I’m not kidding. And some of them are folks who should know better. Of course there are some who bike when the weather allows it (not in winter). I suggested to one of them once that we should start a bike-to-work campaign like they have it in some places in Canada. (At McMaster University, it took a form of competition between departments – which department has most people using alternatives to cars, and we all got pins symbolizing our means of transport. I still have my bike pin.) He laughed – what a good joke. I also remember a staff member telling me that she doesn’t like outdoors – all she needs is to make sure her insurance and annual road fee are paid and she’s happy. And I thought I was escaping the car culture when I left North America. (‘Car culture’ is even on my little list of 10 reasons not to miss Canada – to remind me in my weak moments. I guess I need to add it to the list of reasons not to miss this place either.)
The vice chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, professor Mohan Munasingh proposes that indigenous peoples should instruct other folks how to live in a way that doesn’t pollute the environment. Well, our political leaders weren’t very helpful in giving us any direction where to start. I’m not sure if people around me are the right place either. I tried to start paper recycling at the Sami College but I wasn’t taken very seriously and didn’t get very far.
I recall an elderly Sami lady and a traditional weather forecaster, in a newspaper some months ago, criticizing Sami for forgetting how to look after the environment and living off the land. To go and learn from the old people – Sami political leadership didn’t mention that either. Maybe they’ve forgotten too?